Despite missing 19 of the last 25 games, Brian Kelly is just grateful to be playing for a playoff contender again.
"I'm not that frustrated. Because you know last year, I couldn't play," Kelly said. "But this year, it's been one of those things you've got to deal with because it's part of the game. But the fact that I'm healthy now and we're playing good ball and we've got a chance to be in the playoffs, that's what makes it more exciting."
Kelly, for 10 seasons the Bucs' other bookend cornerback alongside Ronde Barber, played in just two games last season and was eventually placed on injured reserve to undergo successful surgery to repair a chronic turf toe.
Nobody could blame him. Even if he could have gutted it out for a few more games, the Bucs were 2-4 and their season was circling the drain.
This season, Kelly's comeback was aborted after the regular-season opener at Seattle when he suffered a groin strain.
Kelly attempted to return two weeks later against the Rams before aggravating the injury. Two after that, he gave it a go at Indianapolis and had three tackles but was worse for it.
"He got hurt the first game and probably came back a little soon," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. "I appreciated what he did against the Rams, he sucked it up and played most of game. He tried to force the issue in Indianapolis and he wasn't ready. He came back before the bye (against the Cardinals) and looked pretty good. He got a week off and I can't wait to see him this weekend."
How much Kelly will play is uncertain, primarily because he is being used primarily as a nickel cornerback in passing situations when teams go to at least three receivers. At 31, Kelly has taken a back seat to Phillip Buchanon, the former Raiders first-round pick claimed off waivers from Houston last season. In 19 games with the Bucs, Buchanon has four interceptions.
For now, Kelly is okay with his limited role.
"I'm fine with that," Kelly said. "I have plenty of opportunities to make plays, you know. If I was sitting over there twiddling my thumbs and doing nothing, I'd be upset. But I'm in 42 snaps, 30 of them were nickel last week. I'm fine with that. I know at the end of the day, I know what's going on."
What's going on is that at 27, Buchanon could have a longer future than Kelly in Tampa Bay. Both are signed through 2008, when Buchanon is scheduled to earn $1.9 million and Kelly $3.2 million.
"Over the years, we've never had a problem playing the best guy," Morris said. "The whole (defensive backs) room knows it. The best guy is going to start. We're going to play the best players with the first 11. But if you play that nickel back, you play a lot of football. It's great seeing the competition between those guys. Brian has helped Phillip by competing and being a mentor.
"What (Kelly) brings, we don't have in our room, one of the better off corners who you can put in space and he can transition and make plays on the football."
--QB Jeff Garcia says his tired right throwing arm is well rested and he will attempt to start 16 games in a season for the first time since 2002 with the 49ers.
--QB Bruce Gradkowski took extra reps during the bye week and will continue to serve as the No. 2 quarterback.
--RB Michael Pittman simulated game activity in Monday's practice and will return from an ankle sprain that forced him to miss three games.
--RT Jeremy Trueblood will appeal a $15,000 fine for impermissible contact with an official in a game against the Cardinals.
--WR Joey Galloway leads the Bucs with 648 yards and five touchdowns and is on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard season.
--WR Ike Hilliard needs 442 yards receiving over the next seven games to record the first 1,000-yard season of his career.